Researchers argue a commonly used program isn’t the best way to measure student poverty

Written by on July 14, 2021

Researchers argue a commonly used program isn’t the best way to measure student poverty

By Chloe Nouvelle

July 14, 2021

Photo | Chloe Nouvelle / WLVR

Researchers at the University of Missouri argue a commonly used program isn’t the best way to determine how many students face financial hardships. 

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In their paper, researchers conclude that free and reduced-price meal eligibility is not a good measurement of student poverty. 

Edward J. Fuller, an associate professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies in the College of Education at the Pennsylvania State University, says that can lead to inaccurate results and that more students qualify than should. 

“They conclude that it’s an overestimate of poverty, at least as we currently define poverty,” Fuller says. 

Fuller says researchers point out that districts and parents have different “incentives” to make a student eligible for a free or reduced-price school lunch. And that parents volunteer their income and there’s often no way to check its accuracy. 

And that affects the funding schools receive. 

“A lot of money goes through distribution based on your free and reduced-price meals eligibility. So, yeah it can make a huge difference for some districts,” Fuller says.  

The researchers suggest other metrics, such as “school neighborhood poverty,” are “promising” for measuring student need.

But not all education policy experts agree with the researchers’ findings.

Brooks Bowden, an assistant professor in the Education Policy Division at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, says students struggling with issues like food insecurity are generally underestimated, not overestimated. And using neighborhood data to consider aid would mean officials would miss lower-income students living in higher-income neighborhoods. 

“Where you might have some students who are really experiencing hardship, but maybe they’re only 40% of the student body. And in that case, that’s still four out of 10 kids. We still want to get resources to those kids,” Bowden says. 

Nationally, with the current measurements, just over half of kids in the U.S. qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

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